Himmat was born in 1933. When a person has lived in a time quite distant from our own, their life acquires a fascinating, almost mystical quality. Everything was different then. India herself seemed almost like another country. The British were still ruling us. Many places, including Himmat’s village, did not have electricity. Fewer people went to school and college. Many crafts were still alive and thriving. Women were far more cloistered than they are today. Reading newspapers and books were the only way to get information. Letter writing was very much alive. Traveling anywhere, especially abroad, was quite an expedition. One could buy things with just one anna.
Talking to Himmat is like stepping into another world. Although I use the word ‘interviewing’, in essence what we had was more of a long conversation, spread over days. Interviewing requires asking the right questions at the right moment. Although I had planned a list of questions, I often went off-script, depending on the way the conversation turned. This kind of spontaneity leads to more interesting anecdotes and surprising revelations. Yet, it may also mean time spent in unimportant details. One then has to steer the conversation back on course. A person reveals more in an informal environment, than in a formal interview set-up.
Talking over food is one of the best ways to learn more about another human being. A shared meal is a great icebreaker, and speaking with Himmat over lunches and teas led to more insights. For instance, in our first meal together, it became obvious that Himmat is diabetic. When he was young, he often ate only one meal a day, due to financial constraints. He bought art materials first, and food, later. Decades of this habit led to a sugar imbalance. He is quite a good cook, having cooked for himself for much of his life. In the midst of our conversation, he excused himself to go to the kitchen. He was very enthusiastic to cook the dal-tadka for his guests himself. It is these everyday acts, or habits, that give a writer a delightful little window into a person’s life and mind. All-in-all, his is a very independent, yet warm nature, that doesn’t succumb to the rules of society.
We had hours of voice recordings, which we later transcribed. Transcription is a mind-deadening activity, yet a very important part of any interview. From these transcriptions we filtered out the ideas that would fit such a book.
In the next post, I’ll talk about content strategy – how we tried to understand Himmat’s work in high relief and Himmat, the artist and the person.